By Shereen Siewert

Judges in Marathon County have granted multiple bond reduction requests amid the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing even habitual offenders with a history of non-compliance their freedom while awaiting trial.

Andre Kelly, who has eight open cases in Marathon County, five of them involving felony charges, is one of those defendants. Kelly faces more than two dozen charges including hit and run, recklessly endangering safety, resisting or obstructing an officer, battery and two OWI charges among other, less serious offenses, court records show.

Andre Kelly booking photo, courtesy of the Marathon County Sheriff’s Department

Kelly in February failed to appear for a scheduled initial appearance, prompting the court commissioner to issue a warrant for his arrest. Days later, after Kelly was captured, Circuit Judge Falstad ordered a $3,000 cash bond. Now, Kelly is free until his next court hearing. On April 29, his attorney successfully petitioned Circuit Judge LaMont Jacobson to reduce his cash bond amount to $1,500. Five days later, Kelly posted the cash and was released.

Motions filed by prosecutors show their opposition to such requests for bond modification in several cases. Sara Best, 38, is now free despite having four open felony cases, three of which are in Marathon County.

In his motion in support of reduced bond, defense attorney Peter Rotter told Circuit Judge Jill Falstad that his client had no prior criminal convictions, that her crime involved no weapons or violence, and that her prior missed court appearances were quickly resolved.

But Marathon County Assistant District Attorney Davis Runde, in his opposing motion, said Best has had “continuous” contact with the victims of one of her crimes, during which she remained on their property for significant periods of time, smashed the windows of her own car, moved a statue and wrote “mother(expletive)” on the ground for the victims to see.

Sara A. Best, 42, of Hatley. Felony charges filed April 1 include intimidating a victim and six counts of bail jumping.

Best, Runde said, has been given “every opportunity” to remain out of custody, but went so far as to make contact with her alleged victims one day after being cited for bail jumping – “in direct defiance” with the court’s orders, the motion states.

Best, of Hatley, was released May 4 Rotter successfully argued his client’s previously ordered bail of $5,000 was more than necessary to ensure she return to court.

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Crystal Taylor, 38, also bonded out of jail this week after Marathon County Circuit Judge LaMont Jacobson granted defense attorney Julianne Lennon’s bond reduction request. In Lennon’s notice of motion, she asserts that her client “voluntarily appeared” to quash a warrant for her arrest, ordered in October, and that the judge “failed to consider” her voluntary appearance when setting a $5,000 cash bond.

Prosecutors objected strenuously to Lennon’s motion, pointing out that Taylor was out on four felony bonds when arrested in a fifth felony case, even after posting $2,000 cash.

Court documents show Taylor is accused of trying to evade arrest in March 2019 by jumping from a second-story motel room in Rothschild as officers entered the room. That, Assistant District Attorney Kerri Plug told the judge, points to a “pattern of behavior” that causes the state “grave concerns whether she will return to face charges if released on bond.

Further, Plug wrote, Taylor has had 12 bench warrants issued in the past, demonstrating a significant history of non-compliance with bond.

Despite Plug’s argument, Judge Jacobson on Monday reduced Taylor’s bond to a $10,000 signature bond with the first $2,500 to be paid in cash. VINE, an electronic victim notification service, shows Taylor is no longer in custody.

“To my knowledge, there have not been a significant number of releases based upon the COVID pandemic – but there have been a few,” said Marathon County Jail Administrator Sandra LaDu.

So far, no one has tested positive for COVID-19 at the jail, including inmates and corrections staff, though some have been tested while others have been quarantined.

LaDu said the jail has significantly fewer inmates now compared to the population before Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer at Home order was implemented, for a variety of reasons. As of May 7, the jail housed 203 inmates, with 52 housed in out-of-county facilities. In addition, 26 are on home monitor, for a total of 286, LaDu said.

By contrast, on March 23 there were 334 inmates, 241 of whom were at the Marathon County Jail, she said.

LaDu said police and prosecutors have also made changes that have had an impact on the jail population including summoning defendants into court rather than taking them into custody. Some court functions, including processing of “failure to appear” warrants, have been reduced. Many court appearances have been pushed out to June or are yet to be determined, and probation and parole agents are making an effort to manage clients without jail sanctions, LaDu said.

Some groups, including The Bail Project and others, continue to urge judges and corrections officials to allow early releases and bail reductions to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19 in jails.

Victim’s mother: “I believe there is a broken system”

But victims say their rights must be considered as well.

The mother of a 9-year-old girl who was allegedly assaulted in March told Wausau Pilot & Review she’s frustrated by Circuit Judge LaMont Jacobson’s decision to reduce the suspect’s $10,000 bond in the case. The woman, whose name is not being published in order to protect the victim, said she wants the judge to be held accountable for that decision.

Joseph Davidson-Young, of Milwaukee, faces felony charges filed March 16 in Marathon County Circuit Court of child abuse-intentionally causing harm, strangulation/suffocation and bail jumping.

Court records show Jacobson granted Joseph Davidson-Young’s request for a bail reduction on April 29. The new amount, $2,500, covers this and two additional Marathon County cases, one of which also involves violent crimes against children.

The alleged victim’s mother said she was never contacted before that decision was made, and she is fearful for her daughter and her family should Davidson-Young raise the funds to be free.

“I believe there is a broken system,” she said.

In a social media post, Marathon County Sheriff Scott Parks said his department was under pressure by some people who called for the release of all offenders shortly after the recent COVID-19 issues began. Parks declined to do so.

“Those persons had committed crimes and other violations resulting in their being incarcerated,” Parks wrote. “We are mandated to protect the individual’s rights along with maintaining their safety and well-being while in our custody and we do that daily whether there is a virus pandemic or not.”